Thursday, May 31, 2012
Our place in history ...: On Democracy in Mexico: A View from the United States, Written Two Hundred and Thirty Six Years After the Declaration of Independence
"Thus, the question of whether justice can be achieved in society may not depend on whether individuals can be forced to comply with civil authority but on whether individuals and civil authority can act in harmony with, and fulfill their moral obligations toward, each other. Moreover, there may be a moral obligation to comply with civil authority only if that authority is legitimate (i.e. if that authority is based on a fair and just agreement among the members of society).
- Jean Jacques Rousseau - The Social Contract (1762)"
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"On October 2, 1968, approximately 10,000 students – including my parents – from Mexican high schools and universities gathered for a peaceful rally at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, a public square in one of Mexico City’s boroughs. The Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, a.k.a., the PRI) ordered over 5,000 soldiers and 200 tanks to surround the square. Thousands of demonstrators never made it home. It is still not known how many died that night. The PRI hid what occurred after the first shot was fired in the plaza for decades."
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Also you can watch the video below of Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman, giving a bashing to English opponents in their own territory.
Europe is in disarray, and the money is coming back to the US. China has slowed down, it seems their way of doing business was not right. Without free people, there is no progress.
I am sitting quite comfortably in Illinois, USA; while my country of Mexico is in the midst, of what I consider a low intensity civil war. From where I stand, I'll put my money in the US economy.
Good job Hillary, and Paul: Members of Team America!
"Increasingly frustrated by the unending violence in Syria, senior diplomats on Thursday raised the specter of civil war and pressed Russia and China to back international action against President Bashar al-Assad before a broadening conflict draws neighboring countries into a regional war."
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"Seven scientists whose work spanned the outer reaches of the solar system and penetrated the inner workings of brain circuits and nanotubes were named winners of the 2012 Kavli Prizes on Thursday. The $1 million awards, sponsored by the physicist, businessman and philanthropist Fred Kavli, are given every two years by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters for work in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience, “the biggest, the smallest and the most complex,” in the words of Mr. Kavli."
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"WASHINGTON — After several villagers were killed on a Honduran river this month during a raid on drug smugglers by Honduran and American agents, a local backlash raised concerns that the United States’ expanding counternarcotics efforts in Central America might be going too far. But United States officials in charge of that policy see it differently."
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By ROB WALKER
When the Kinect was introduced in November 2010 as a $150 motion-control add-on to Microsoft’s Xbox consoles, it drew attention from more than just video-gamers. A slim, black, oblong 11½-inch wedge perched on a base, it allowed a gamer to use his or her body to throw virtual footballs or kick virtual opponents without a controller, but it was also seen as an important step forward in controlling technology with natural gestures.
In fact, as the company likes to note, the Kinect set “a Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling consumer device ever.” And at least some of the early adopters of the Kinect were not content just to play games with it. “Kinect hackers” were drawn to the fact that the object affordably synthesizes an arsenal of sophisticated components — notably, a fancy video camera, a “depth sensor” to capture visual data in three dimensions and a multiarray microphone capable of a similar trick with audio.
Combined with a powerful microchip and software, these capabilities could be put to uses unrelated to the Xbox. Like: enabling a small drone to “see” its surroundings and avoid obstacles; rigging up a 3-D scanner to create small reproductions of most any object (or person); directing the music of a computerized orchestra with conductorlike gestures; remotely controlling a robot to brush a cat’s fur. It has been used to make animation, to add striking visual effects to videos, to create an “interactive theme park” in South Korea and to control a P.C. by the movement of your hands (or, in a variation developed by some Japanese researchers, your tongue).
At the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, used his keynote presentation to announce that the company would release a version specifically meant for use outside the Xbox context and to indicate that the company would lay down formal rules permitting commercial uses for the device. A result has been a fresh wave of Kinect-centric experiments aimed squarely at the marketplace: helping Bloomingdale’s shoppers find the right size of clothing; enabling a “smart” shopping cart to scan Whole Foods customers’ purchases in real time; making you better at parallel parking.
An object that spawns its own commercial ecosystem is a thing to take seriously. Think of what Apple’s app store did for the iPhone, or for that matter how software continuously expanded the possibilities of the personal computer. Patent-watching sites report that in recent months, Sony, Apple and Google have all registered plans for gesture-control technologies like the Kinect. But there is disagreement about exactly how the Kinect evolved into an object with such potential. Did Microsoft intentionally create a versatile platform analogous to the app store? Or did outsider tech-artists and hobbyists take what the company thought of as a gaming device and redefine its potential?
This clash of theories illustrates a larger debate about the nature of innovation in the 21st century, and the even larger question of who, exactly, decides what any given object is really for. Does progress flow from a corporate entity’s offering a whiz-bang breakthrough embraced by the masses? Or does techno-thing success now depend on the company’s acquiescing to the crowd’s input? Which vision of an object’s meaning wins? The Kinect does not neatly conform to either theory. But in this instance, maybe it’s not about whose vision wins; maybe it’s about the contest.
Theodore Watson bought a Kinect as soon as the gadget was available. He soon acquired 15 more. He admits to a “slight addiction” to the game Call of Duty, but he does not use any of his Kinects to play games. Watson is an artist and a designer who lives in Brooklyn, and his work uses closed-circuit security cameras, graphics cards and gaming hardware “tweaked,” he notes, “for our purposes.”
To use a Kinect with a computer instead of an Xbox, Watson needed a “driver” (basically a bit of software) that did not exist. He joined a small, far-flung, highly dedicated and technically sophisticated community effort dubbed OpenKinect, which sprang up immediately after the Kinect was introduced, to write the code that would make this possible. At the same time, Adafruit, a hobbyist-focused electronics company based in New York, offered $1,000 to the first person or group to write the necessary code in an open-source format.
At the time — this was shortly before the 2010 holiday season — Microsoft’s primary Kinect focus was the mainstream game-playing market. Its first response to OpenKinect seemed predictable: CNET reported an unnamed spokesperson declaring that the company “does not condone the modification of its products” and would “work closely with law enforcement . . . to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.” Adafruit increased its prize, ultimately to $3,000. Within days a developer in Spain posted videos demonstrating that he made his Kinect work with a P.C. OpenKinect refined and spread the open-source driver code, and a variety of “Kinect hacks,” as they came to be called, proliferated in YouTube videos. (An early example involved a Kinect used to create a version of the hand-swipe control contraption Tom Cruise used in “Minority Report.”) Soon Watson and his wife, Emily Gobeille, posted their own video, in which her hand movements were captured by a Kinect and translated onto a screen displaying a computer-generated bird figure, which she controlled like a high-tech puppet.
Watson told me this by phone from Amsterdam, where he and Gobeille had just presented a polished version of their creation as an installation at CineKid, an international entertainment festival, for an audience that included Dutch royalty. The specter of a Microsoft-backed “law enforcement” response to projects like his had obviously faded. In fact, shortly after the open-source driver was finished, one of Microsoft’s top Kinect people appeared on NPR’s “Science Friday” and, in remarks that were widely reproduced across the Web, asserted that OpenKinect participants would “absolutely not” be prosecuted.
In December 2010, Microsoft’s partner PrimeSense, an Israeli company that created the Kinect’s 3-D depth-sensing chip, released its own set of software drivers and code for the so-called hackers to monkey with. A few months later, Microsoft announced it would release its own code kit. It certainly seemed, as Mashable.com put it, that the company had “done a complete 180 when it comes to hacks.”
The idea of a loosely knit band of outsider creative coders forcing a massive company to rethink a crucial new product is appealing. Especially when that company is Microsoft. Fairly or not, Microsoft is widely viewed not as an innovator but as a peddler of me-too products (the Zune, Explorer, Bing, even the look and feel, if you will, of Windows itself) with ruthless business acumen. Open-source zealots point all the way back to 1976, when Bill Gates wrote an “open letter to hobbyists,” complaining that distributors of free, unauthorized copies of software created by what was then called Micro-Soft were disreputable pirates, thwarting progress by removing the financial incentives to improve and develop technology. As John Markoff, a reporter for The Times, put it in his 2005 book, “What the Dormouse Said,” it was a primal ideological standoff between an “anarchic cadre of programmers and hardware tinkerers” and profit-hungry business. That standoff persists.
Last year, I visited the company’s campus in Redmond, Wash., to talk about the Kinect. I was led to an ersatz living room with three couches and a couple of huge TV screens within a mini-mall-style building called the Commons, to meet Alex Kipman. A 32-year-old Brazilian who has spent his entire career at Microsoft, Kipman is credited by the company as the quarterback of the Kinect project; he’s the guy who assured NPR listeners that Microsoft was not siccing lawyers on the OpenKinect community. He has shaggy hair and wore jeans and a mauve T-shirt with a skull design. Three publicists hovered as I floated the notion that Microsoft has a reputation for being a little, you know, control-obsessed.
He cheerily acknowledged that perception and then served up a very different version of the Kinect story. In the hackers’ version, Microsoft had effectively lost control of its own product, thanks to the open-source efforts fueled partly by the Adafruit OpenKinect contest. It had since emerged that Johnny Chung Lee, an employee of Microsoft in the Applied Sciences Group, had covertly bankrolled that competition, and later said — after decamping for Google — that he did so after his “internal efforts” to persuade the company to immediately support the Kinect’s potential beyond gaming went nowhere. “Best $3,000 I ever spent,” he wrote on his blog.
Kipman dismissed the notion that outsiders changed Microsoft’s mind about the Kinect’s potential, or its strategy. For starters, Kinect had not been “hacked” at all, because no one had cracked its proprietary code. “If you’re just person X out there, it’s much more glamorous to call it ‘hacking,’ ” he continued. “From my perspective, it’s ‘tinkering.’ ” Moreover, Kipman waved off Lee’s account of internal resistance to non-Xbox uses for the Kinect: the master plan for the Kinect always included the P.C. “Johnny wasn’t part of any of those conversations,” he told me. “He didn’t even work at Xbox.” The Kinect project attracted lots of enthusiasm within Microsoft, Kipman said, and Lee was a “bright kid” but merely one of “hundreds” of Microsoft coders “contributing from the fringes” who “lacked perspective” on how business works. Besides, he concluded, Microsoft had no problem with the “tinkerer crew” because it anticipated them.
Lee initially declined to comment for this article, but he did e-mail me a response to Kipman’s account: “The tremendous amount of positive press coverage on Kinect projects in the months immediately following launch was worth tens of millions dollars in marketing for Xbox — and remains one of the most culturally interesting aspects of this product, keeping us actively talking about the technology today. Stimulating that for $3,000 seems like good business sense to me.”
Either way, the incident seemed to burnish Microsoft’s reputation. Wired even published an article crediting Microsoft for its forward-thinking attitude toward collaborating with the masses: “No company has made it so easy to hack into a product as popular as the Kinect,” the article asserted, implying that the company planned on home-brew innovators as crucial strategic partners. So I thought I was throwing Kipman a softball when I asked if all the hubbub had ultimately helped Kinect’s highly successful launch.
Not really, Kipman replied. Off-label creators numbered “maybe a thousand,” and millions of Kinect buyers have no awareness of their existence. “We still want to foster” that community, he allowed. “But from the perspective of a multibillion-dollar program, it was neutral. It was neither good nor bad.”
Kinect hackers may not have cared about video games, but what they wanted — a device containing specific high-tech components for just $150 — was achievable specifically because of its connection to something with the scale of the Xbox system. Only a company the size of Microsoft could afford the massive research-and-development costs, and only mass-market appeal could make such a product financially viable.
Kyle McDonald, a digital artist based in Brooklyn, had been working with 3-D sensor technology for years when the Kinect came out, so at first he underestimated the significance of Microsoft’s latest product. But within a week, the hacker videos and online commentary changed his mind, and he bought one. This is evidence of something even more surprising than the possibility that Microsoft had learned to love the hackers: Outsider tech creators have learned to love a Microsoft product. Or if not love, then at least take it seriously. McDonald teaches a class at New York University on “appropriating new technologies.” The goal of any given Kinect hack, he says, isn’t simply to create a high-tech puppet show but to understand how the device works and what its function could be.
The theory that companies should wholeheartedly embrace strange experimentations of people like McDonald turns on a straightforward idea: It’s good for the bottom line. “You get unexpected uses of your products that might contribute to a different direction your company can go,” says Bas van Abel, a designer in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and co-author of the book “Open Design Now.” Established companies may still resist that argument, but more and more upstarts take it for granted that a community of customers, hobbyists and amateurs (or, as van Abel prefers, hackers and artists) will innovate well beyond what any firm can come up with on its own.
According to Henry Chesbrough, a business professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Open Innovation,” even mainstream companies are starting to agree that tech hobbyists aren’t just consumers but creative partners. This, he says, is purely pragmatic: “We can get more done with less resources by collaborating, cooperating with this community.” He points to Lego’s capitalizing on the unexpected (and decidedly fringy) inventions by users of its Mindstorms motor kits, essentially expanding the company’s place in the mainstream and lucrative education market.
Some at Microsoft do in fact seem pleased about Kinect experimentation from the fringes, particularly those I met in the company’s research division. Microsoft Research, which is separate from the Xbox unit, released the official software developer kit for the Kinect, promoting it with an event called Code Camp last June: a couple of dozen developers, designers, students and others were invited to dream up and create Kinect-using projects in 24 hours, demonstrating the results in a live Webcast. But for the most part, Microsoft’s message about the Kinect in its first year on the market kept it in the predictable context of the living-room entertainment center. In December 2011, the company announced what it called “an all-new Xbox 360 experience,” in which the Kinect’s voice-recognition capabilities acted as a sort of souped-up remote control: you bark “Cate Blanchett movies” at your TV, for example, to see what’s available.
The Microsoft Research Kinect software developer kit — the one announced shortly after the OpenKinect kerfuffle and released last summer — was intended for academics and enthusiasts and carried a license that ruled out business uses; one Kinect hacker complained to me that using it amounted to giving Microsoft free publicity. His point was illustrated just before the Kinect’s first anniversary by an Xbox promotional video, titled “Kinect Effect.” It opens with a product shot, as a narrator explains, over uplifting strings, that “something amazing is happening — the world is starting to imagine things we hadn’t even thought of.” The slick montage features what appear to be actors using the Kinect in various academic, medical and artistic settings. Microsoft hadn’t fought the hackers, but it hadn’t really embraced them either. Instead the company monitored “the Kinect effect” — and appropriated it.
A new version of the Kinect, specifically designed to work with a Windows P.C., came out in February, along with a software kit that would allow developers to create commercial Kinect applications. The P.C. version of the device costs $250, or $100 more than the Xbox version, but the developer software is free. (A slightly upgraded version was released in May.) By March, Microsoft announced team-ups with 350 commercial partners on applications for hospitals, assembly lines, work-force training and so on, including many big corporate names, like American Express and Toyota.
The newer wave of Kinect “hacks” attracting attention in the tech-and-trend press includes interactive shop fronts and billboards, tools for retailers to learn from consumers’ in store-behavior, home security, online banking and something called “natural user interface advertising,” which would use the Kinect to detect, for advertisers, information about who is watching television. Microsoft has also teamed with TechStars, a business incubator, on an effort called Kinect Accelerator, backing a batch of entrepreneurs with business plans built around the Kinect.
In effect, as Tim Carmody, a technology writer, pointed out, the decision to tether market-oriented innovations to a new, P.C.-centric version of the Kinect (and to Microsoft-distributed developer software and commercial-use licensing) has created a separate community of application creation. Creators using the open-source software that makes the original Kinect work with non-Xbox devices can’t really participate in the commercial market — but they’re still free to experiment. That’s not exactly the “open innovation” idea. Then again, it’s also a long way from an attempt to regain full, top-down control over who shapes the way this technology will be used. And maybe this outcome makes sense given the Kinect’s history.
Kyle McDonald, the Brooklyn artist who initially underestimated the Kinect’s importance, still works with the device today. And he’s intrigued by the fact that so many people like him are still experimenting with it, using it in new ways and sharing the code that makes it possible for others to do the same. “People are trying to decide for themselves what they want these technologies to mean,” McDonald says. The answer used to come from defense firms, academia, megacorporations. “It can’t be just them,” he continues. “It has to be everyone.” Maybe that’s supposed to mean a new form of harmony between corporations and outsiders, but in this case, it feels like creative friction.
"Next week will be the last opportunity this century to see the planet Venus as a little black dot moving across the solar disk--a rare event with a long, important history in astronomy"
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Wednesday, May 30, 2012
His idea is very simple, nations fail, when one group extracts, or exploits the work of other group. I believe Israelis are in one of those, one in a thousand years situations, when they can start a new stage of the Middle East future.
When England, at the end of the Black Death, had to negotiate with the working class, new rules to resolve conflict, a new era started.
After the Arab Spring, Israel can likewise, initiate such a revolution.
The note below illustrates the unique political situation of Israel. First the Palestinians go unilaterally to the UN, then the Israelis, unilaterally, if Mr. Barak advice is followed, define the borders between Israel and Palestine.
I propose that Israel and Palestine get together at the UN, and sign a Peace Treaty, recognizing the right of the two people to exist, like in England after the 1688 Glorious Revolution.
"TEL AVIV — Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday that Israel should consider imposing the borders of a future Palestinian state, becoming the most senior government official to suggest bypassing a stagnant peace process."
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By GAIL COLLINS
I cannot tell you what a relief it was when I discovered that the multibillion-dollar trading loss at JPMorgan was because of deer.
Yes, I know. You thought it was the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, right? Me, too.
Then I read the recent Times article by Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Nelson Schwartz that reported that Ina Drew, the executive who was in charge of JPMorgan’s chief investment office, had been laid low by Lyme disease during the period preceding the debacle.
Some of you who don’t live in the Northeast may not be familiar with Lyme disease, but it can really knock you out. And it’s not always easy to diagnose, so it can hang around until the symptoms get truly debilitating. Believe me, if you have advanced Lyme disease, you are not going to be able to keep a handle on a passel of frisky traders.
Lyme disease is transmitted by the bites of ticks, which are carried around by deer. A typical victim might be a New Jersey resident who enjoys gardening. Ina Drew lives in New Jersey and is an avid gardener — a hobby that she’ll unfortunately be able to pursue full-time this season.
The deer. I think we really do have our villain.
There has been way too much combination of cataclysmic and incomprehensible in our worry list lately. (See: euro.) So it’s a nice change of pace to be able to put the blame for bad developments on simple-minded critters who have no idea that there’s anything in the world outside their own need to feed and reproduce. Like deer. Or ticks. Or Donald Trump.
We have now reached the point where the exurban deer population is so large and so omnipresent that soon they’re going to start setting up trailer camps. Paul Curtis, the extension wildlife specialist at Cornell University, says that to get the tick population down to a reasonable level, “you need deer densities of six to eight per square mile or less. In the urban-rural fringes of many large metropolitan areas, it’s not unusual to have densities of 100 to 200 per square mile.”
Really, whenever you get to the point where the main source of deer fatalities is traffic collisions, you have way too many deer. Curtis says Cornell has had great success with a program to sterilize the does, but it costs about $1,000 per animal. I am going to go out on a limb and guess that if Congress can’t bring itself to spring for an adequate number of bank regulators, it’s not going to fork over that kind of money for deer birth control.
Also, Curtis says it would help if hunters had to bag two females before they’re allowed to shoot a stag. The problem with this is that hunters do not like being told what to do, and nobody wants to offend them. These days the whole gun thing is so volatile that even the most ardent weapons-control advocates try to keep on the right side of the hunters, just so you know they’re regular guys. (See: Senator Chuck Schumer holding dead pheasant.)
I always thought the reason we had so much trouble controlling the deer population was because deer have big eyes and adorable tails. But it turns out that North Carolina is having a terrible problem with feral hogs, and that can’t be because they’re cute.
The key here is the environment — global warming, suburban sprawl, wolf depopulation, etc. But there’s also something about America that encourages excess by every species. A Starbucks outlet is great — how can 12,000 not be better? We are the land of the 26-week baseball season and 1,230 professional basketball games per year. Where it is not possible to have one television show about bidding on abandoned storage lockers, extreme fishing, misbehaving housewives or hog-hunting without having two, three, four or seven. (How is it possible to have both an overpopulation of feral hogs and an excess of reality TV shows about feral hog-hunters?)
Politically, we’ve always had eccentric/loony billionaires that occasionally get involved in big campaigns, but this year we’ve spawned herds of them, marching across the landscape, lowing about socialism and leaving behind vast dumps of TV ads and old Newt Gingrich buttons. Dozens and dozens of little Congressional candidates are attached to their hides, waiting to jump off and start new Tea Party epidemics in the azaleas.
And Donald Trump! Trump has been around for years and years and years, and his TV show, “Celebrity Apprentice,” served a useful function as a haven for aging American Idols and retired professional wrestlers. For a long time, nobody noticed that he had left his normal habitat and was wandering around in people’s backyards, racing across the highway in the middle of the night and eating all the day lilies.
Next thing you know, if you’re Mitt Romney, you wake up one morning to headlines like: “Acquaintance of Donald Trump Wins Republican Presidential Nomination.” You’ve been bit.NYT
"Young illegal immigrants, saying President Obama has done little to diminish the threat of deportations they face despite repeated promises, have started a campaign to press him to use executive powers to allow them to remain legally in the country."
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"As risk aversion gripped financial markets broadly, strong bids for safe-haven assets sent 10-year U.S. Treasury yields down to their lowest in at least 60 years at 1.620 percent on Wednesday. The yield on five-year Japanese government bonds fell to 0.20 percent, its lowest since October 2010."
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"Bienvenidos a la Primavera Mexicana, Donde la Juventud Florece, y No se Detendrá Hasta Alcanzar sus Sueños".
By WIL S. HYLTON
In the menagerie of Craig Venter’s imagination, tiny bugs will save the world. They will be custom bugs, designer bugs — bugs that only Venter can create. He will mix them up in his private laboratory from bits and pieces of DNA, and then he will release them into the air and the water, into smokestacks and oil spills, hospitals and factories and your house.
Each of the bugs will have a mission. Some will be designed to devour things, like pollution. Others will generate food and fuel. There will be bugs to fight global warming, bugs to clean up toxic waste, bugs to manufacture medicine and diagnose disease, and they will all be driven to complete these tasks by the very fibers of their synthetic DNA.
Right now, Venter is thinking of a bug. He is thinking of a bug that could swim in a pond and soak up sunlight and urinate automotive fuel. He is thinking of a bug that could live in a factory and gobble exhaust and fart fresh air. He may not appear to be thinking about these things. He may not appear to be thinking at all. He may appear to be riding his German motorcycle through the California mountains, cutting the inside corners so close that his kneepads skim the pavement. This is how Venter thinks. He also enjoys thinking on the deck of his 95-foot sailboat, halfway across the Pacific Ocean in a gale, and while snorkeling naked in the Sargasso Sea surrounded by Portuguese men-of-war. When Venter was growing up in San Francisco, he would ride his bicycle to the airport and race passenger jets down the runway. As a Navy corpsman in Vietnam, he spent leisurely afternoons tootling up the coast in a dinghy, under a hail of enemy fire.
What’s strange about Venter is that this works — that the clarity he finds when he is hurtling through the sea and the sky, the dreams he summons, the fantasies he concocts in his most unhinged moments of excess actually have a way of coming true. He dreamed of mapping the human genome, and he did it. He dreamed of creating a synthetic organism, and he made it. In 2003, he scrawled a line across a map of the world, hopped on his boat with a small team and sailed around the planet in search of new forms of life. By the time they returned, two years later, they had discovered more species than anyone in history.
And last fall, Venter was back in motion at the end of another journey. He was crouched atop his touring bike in the final stretch of a weeklong sprint through the American Southwest, with a handful of friends trailing behind as he whipped through the mountain foothills in a blur. In the days to come, he would return to his office to piece together a design for the first of his custom bugs. But as he streaked back toward the lab, he made a final detour, swerving into the parking lot of a bakery to grab a slice of fresh pie. Venter hopped off his motorcycle, lifted his helmet and grinned into the California sun. “We hit 110!” he said. “Now I feel like I can go back to work.”
A Sci-Fi Fantasy Made Possible?
The prospect of artificial life is so outlandish that we rarely even mean the words. Most of the time we mean clever androids or computers that talk. Even the pages of science fiction typically stop short: in the popular dystopian narrative, robots are always taking over, erecting armies, firing death rays and sometimes even learning to love, but underneath their replicant skin, they tend to be made of iron ore. From the Terminator to the Matrix to the awakening of HAL, what preoccupies the modern imagination is the sentient evolution of machines, not artificial life itself.
But inside the laboratories of biotechnology, a more literal possibility is taking hold: What if machines really were alive? To some extent, this is already happening. Brewers and bakers have long relied on the diligence of yeast to make beer and bread, and in medical manufacturing, it has become routine to harness organisms like Penicillium to generate drugs. At DuPont, engineers are using modified E. coli to produce polyester for carpet, and the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi is using yeast injected with strips of synthetic DNA to manufacture medicine. But the possibility of designing a new organism, entirely from synthetic DNA, to produce whatever compounds we want, would mark a radical leap forward in biotechnology and a paradigm shift in manufacturing.
The appeal of biological machinery is manifold. For one thing, because organisms reproduce, they can generate not only their target product but also more factories to do the same. Then too, microbes use novel fuel. Chances are, unless you’ve slipped off the grid, virtually every machine you own, from your iPhone to your toaster oven, depends on burning fossil fuels to work. Even if you have slipped off the grid, manufacturing those devices required massive carbon emissions. This is not necessarily the case for biomachinery. A custom organism could produce the same plastic or metal as an industrial plant while feeding on the compounds in pollution or the energy of the sun.
Then there is the matter of yield. Over the last 60 years, agricultural production has boomed in large part through plant modification, chemical additives and irrigation. But as the world population continues to soar, adding nearly a billion people over the past decade, major aquifers are giving out, and agriculture may not be able to keep pace with the world’s needs. If a strain of algae could secrete high yields of protein, using less land and water than traditional crops, it may represent the best hope to feed a booming planet.
Finally, the rise of biomachinery could usher in an era of spot production. “Biology is the ultimate distributed manufacturing platform,” Drew Endy, an assistant professor at Stanford University, told me recently. Endy is trained as an engineer but has become a leading proponent of synthetic biology. He sketched a picture of what “distributed manufacturing” by microbes might look like: say a perfume company could design a bacterium to produce an appealing aroma; “rather than running this in a large-scale fermenter, they would upload the DNA sequences onto the future equivalent of iTunes,” he said. “People all over the world could then pay a fee to download the information.” Then, Endy explained, customers could simply synthesize the bugs at home and grow them on their skin. “They could transform epidermal ecosystems to have living production of scents and fragrances,” he said. “Living perfume!”
Whether all this could really happen — or should — depends on whom you ask. The challenge of building a synthetic bacterium from raw DNA is as byzantine as it probably sounds. It means taking four bottles of chemicals — the adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine that make up DNA — and linking them into a daisy chain at least half a million units long, then inserting that molecule into a host cell and hoping it will spring to life as an organism that not only grows and reproduces but also manufactures exactly what its designer intended. (A line about hubris, Icarus and Frankenstein typically follows here.) Since the late 1990s, laboratories around the world have been experimenting with synthetic biology, but many scientists believe that it will take decades to see major change. “We’re still really early,” Endy said. “Or to say it differently, we’re still really bad.”
Venter disagrees. The future, he says, may be sooner than we think. Much of the groundwork is already done. In 2003, Venter’s lab used a new method to piece together a strip of DNA that was identical to a natural virus, then watched it spring to action and attack a cell. In 2008, they built a longer genome, replicating the DNA of a whole bacterium, and in 2010 they announced that they brought a bacterium with synthetic DNA to life. That organism was still mostly a copy of one in nature, but as a flourish, Venter and his team wrote their names into its DNA, along with quotes from James Joyce and J. Robert Oppenheimer and even secret messages. As the bacteria reproduced, the quotes and messages and names remained in the colony’s DNA.
In theory, this leaves just one step between Venter and a custom species. If he can write something more useful than his name into the synthetic DNA of an organism, changing its genetic function in some deliberate way, he will have crossed the threshold to designer life.
Unless he already has.
To Seek Out New Life
In person, Venter is a sturdy 65-year-old with a ring of gray hair, a deep tan, perpetual stubble and crow’s feet that dance around his eyes. When he caught the world’s attention, in 1998, he was leading a private company, Celera Genomics, in a race against the government’s Human Genome Project to complete the first map of human DNA. That race ended in June 2000, when Venter and the director of the government program, Francis S. Collins, shared a lectern at the White House to declare a tie. Neither man particularly wanted to be there, and each believed his own map was superior, but in the interest of science and at the urging of President Bill Clinton, both grudgingly relented.
In the decade since, Collins has gone on to lead the National Institutes of Health, while Venter has mostly drifted away from the capital, where his challenge to the N.I.H. did not particularly kindle friendships. Though his nonprofit organization, the J. Craig Venter Institute, maintains a base in Rockville, Md., Venter spends most of his time in California, where he grew up and is currently building a $35 million laboratory on the campus of his alma mater, the University of California, San Diego. The building is designed to be carbon-neutral, with solar power and rainwater catchment, nestled on 1.75 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean; less than two miles away, Venter has renovated a $6 million home with sweeping curvilinear architecture, which is perched on a hilltop of breathtaking views.
In contrast to his lavish home and office, Venter’s commercial enterprise makes a rather humdrum sight. Tucked into a suburban office park, a few miles north of his home, the headquarters of Synthetic Genomics Inc. is a leased two-story box plopped beside a highway. Yet in some ways, the building is the more exciting locus of Venter’s work. Though its grounds and mission are less expansive than the institute, S.G.I. is where Venter’s breakthroughs will be refined and marketed whenever they have real-world potential.
One day recently, I visited the S.G.I. building to have a look around. I found Venter in his office on the second floor, watching a video on his iPad of a race car he nearly crashed last fall at 120 miles per hour. We watched that footage for a while, then another video from a motorcycle trip, and Venter said he had recently flown a helicopter for the first time.
For a scientist, Venter spends little time in the lab, but it would be a mistake to confuse this with a lack of focus. All critical decisions at his company and his institute ultimately ascend to Venter, who monitors the work of about 500 scientists every day, imparting various kinds of guidance and direction, even if he has to be patched in by satellite. After a few minutes in his office, we were joined by Gerardo Toledo, the company’s senior director of microbial discovery. Toledo is lean and angular with hazel skin and amused eyes. In his spare time, he competes in Ironman triathlons and chases Venter on dirt bikes through the California hills. He suggested we visit the labs on the first floor, and as we descended a flight of stairs, he explained that part of the company’s mission is to find, usually in nature, the genetic components that might be useful in synthetic life. For Toledo, this meant scouring the planet for intriguing microbes with uncommon genes. “The idea is to try to understand the extent of microbe diversity,” he said.
Earth is a microbial planet. Micro-organisms make up about half the planet’s biomass, and without them, large animals could not survive. Because they are so small, so abundant and so differentiated, they also contain most of the earth’s genetic diversity. One of the most important discoveries to emerge from the human-genome projects, both at the N.I.H. and at Celera, was the revelation that humans have relatively few genes. Before the human-genome map, most scientists assumed that there were about 100,000 genes in our DNA. In fact, there are about 20,000, or fewer than those of a typical grape. That discovery was one reason that Venter began trolling the oceans in search of new forms of microbial life. Over the past nine years, he and his crew at the institute have collected water samples from thousands of locations, sending them to his lab to be screened and genetically mapped. In total, they have discovered hundreds of thousands of new species (the number is imprecise because the term “species” can be muddy) and about 60 million new genes. There were genes to help organisms survive in chemically noxious water, genes that led to the production of hydrogen and genes that trigger the manufacture of antibiotics, to name just a few. How Venter might incorporate those genes into a designer species one day remains to be seen. But as we walked down the hallways of S.G.I., Toledo explained that the company’s quest to discover microbes is not limited to the oceans.
He stopped by a framed photograph of a hand filled with oily dirt. “That picture is in Malaysia,” he said. “Oil palm is one of the highest oil-producing crops, but we’re trying to see how that can be enhanced. First by understanding its genome and how it can be better. And second to understand what is the ecosystem of all the microbes that fit with it and help it, for example, to assimilate nutrients and prevent diseases.”
We continued past a series of glassed-in labs, where scientists hunched over flasks filled with green fluid, and Toledo explained that some of the earliest organisms that S.G.I. plans to modify will be strains of algae. That’s because algae, even in a natural state, offer an enticing combination of features: they photosynthesize, capturing energy from the sun; they can absorb carbon dioxide, removing a greenhouse gas from the environment; and they produce oil to store energy, which could be cultivated into food or fuel. For decades, scientists have been tinkering with algae to make them more productive and efficient, but success has been elusive. Venter is convinced that the problem will never be solved by tinkering alone. “Algae didn’t evolve to produce tens of thousands of gallons of oil per acre,” he said. “So we have to force the evolution.” For now, S.G.I. is studying natural strains, but the goal is not to select any one of them; it’s to combine the best qualities from each. “We’re collecting all this knowledge,” Venter said, “and then we have to put it all together and design something that hasn’t existed before.”
Yellow Algae Is Just the Beginning
If the promise of synthetic biology is expansive, the potential for catastrophe is plain. The greater the reach of biomachinery, the more urgent the need to understand its risks. As every hobby gardener knows, the introduction of an outside species can quickly devastate an ecosystem. From the kudzu vine to the gypsy moth to the Burmese python surge in the Everglades, we often discover the impact of a species only when it’s too late. Looking to the dawn of a biomachine age, many environmental groups worry that synthetic bugs could become the ultimate invasive species. “It’s almost inevitable that there will be some level of escape,” Helen Wallace, the executive director of the watchdog group GeneWatch, told me. “The question is: Will those organisms survive and reproduce? I don’t think anyone knows.”
The reassurance offered by Venter and other proponents may not be convincing to everyone. A synthetic bug, they say, has little chance of surviving in the competitive natural ecosystem, and anyway, it could be designed to die without chemical support. In 2010, President Obama ordered his bioethics commission to examine the implications of Venter’s work, and the commission found “limited risks.” Still, a person can be forgiven for recalling the moment in “Jurassic Park” when Dr. Ian Malcolm smirks at a team of genetic engineers and warns them, “Life finds a way.”
At the S.G.I. office, Venter suggested we step outside to visit the greenhouse, where the most promising strains of algae were already growing in open air. We met up with Jim Flatt, the chief technology officer, and followed a narrow path through woods until we emerged at a massive glass facility. We stepped into a staging area filled with hoses and flasks, beside a laboratory stacked with computers and machines. Through a wall of windows, we could see into the main room, where algae was growing in vats under bright sunlight. Each was affixed with a small plastic tube that piped in shots of carbon dioxide. “We use bottled CO2,” Flatt said, “but in an industrial facility, we would use an industrial source. That could be captured from a power plant. It could be captured from a geothermal resource. It could be captured from a cement plant. Or it could be captured from a refinery.”
As Flatt and I poked around, Venter wandered over to chat with a scientist monitoring the algae on a computer, then he stooped by a benchtop shaker with four conical flasks of algae. Three of the samples were deep green; the fourth was brilliant yellow. Venter explained that the yellow algae was the first strain engineered by S.G.I. to include a portion of synthetic DNA. In fact, the color of the algae was the synthetic modification. Changing the pigment of algae may seem trivial, but it represents a critical factor for commercial success. One challenge to growing algae at scale is that a successful strain, by definition, tends to reproduce quickly and turn dark green. This blocks sunlight to the algae below, and requires more-frequent care and harvest. A strain engineered to a lighter color could allow the organisms to grow more densely without obstructing essential light. The yellow algae in Venter’s greenhouse was just the first to include a synthetic adjustment, but it would be followed by a series of similar changes. Even as the company modified pigment, it could also experiment with synthetic alterations to boost the production of oil and even force the algae to secrete that oil into surrounding water. “Their objective is to grow and survive,” Flatt said, “not necessarily to produce things for us. So that’s where the engineering comes into place. We say, ‘We’re going to force you to give it up.’ ”
We stepped into the main room of the greenhouse and walked between huge tubs filled with algae. The next step, Venter said, was to move the algae outside into large ponds. “None of this can be done at the lab scale and have any meaning,” he said. “People take stuff in a little test tube and multiply it by several million or something, and claim they have these yields. But nothing works the same in a giant facility. Most things fail when you take them outside.” To that end, S.G.I. had recently purchased an 81-acre parcel of land about 150 miles away, right beside the Salton Sea, where it can begin to cultivate its most successful strains. The site, he added, also sits near a geothermal power plant, which doesn’t burn fossil fuels but does release carbon dioxide from underground. Venter was already in discussion with the plant’s owner to divert its carbon emissions into the algae. It was possible that, within months, his algae would be turning pollution into food and oil.
We came to the last tub in the room, filled with the telltale yellow: a culture of synthetically modified organisms growing in the open air. They were the color of lemon-lime sports drink and, in the bright sunlight, had a radiant glow. It was like peering into a bathtub filled with the juice of 1,000 light sticks.
Venter gazed happily at the algae. “The photosynthetic process has been working for about three and a half billion years,” he said. “This is the first major change.”
The Art of Creating Life
Venter’s house above La Jolla is a swirl of clean, modern lines, with a sprawling kitchen at one end and hideaway nooks all around. There is a wine room that doubles as a walk-in humidor, an outdoor pool that seems to reach into the ocean and, in the garage below, an electric Tesla Roadster that pops from 0-60 in less than four seconds.
Two weeks ago, Venter met me at the door in jeans and a sweatshirt, and we sat down to chat on a brown leather sofa overlooking the Pacific. Nearby, a six-foot sculpture of a humpback whale leapt from a knotty burl of hardwood. Venter took a sip of a drink and leaned back with a sigh. “It’s too bad we have to do an interview,” he said.
Over the last decade, I have followed Venter’s work closely, which often meant following Venter himself on strange and harrowing journeys. Through the years, I’ve sailed with him, flown with him, dived with him and raced across the desert on motorcycles with him, often against my better judgment and at speeds I prefer not to recall. Many of Venter’s peers in science find his reckless hobbies and temperament obnoxious. No story about his work fails to mention the legion of biologists who despise him or the legendary berth of his ego. This hostility comes partly from his entrepreneurial approach to science. After he challenged the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, he was accused by the eminent James D. Watson, who was a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953, of trying to “own the human genome the way Hitler wanted to own the world.” But to the colleagues who have worked with Venter for decades, his reputation as an egotist can be puzzling. At a dinner table or a cocktail party, Venter is far more likely to brag about his skill at dominoes than any professional accomplishment, and he quickly becomes awkward and irritable when a crowd of admirers surrounds him at a reception.
This is not to say that Venter is modest. He is not. But what defines him is less the show of ego than its immovable mass. When Venter tackles a scientific problem, he tends to ignore just about everyone else working on it and to dismiss whatever approach they are taking — and shoot for the fastest way to beat them to the finish line. Speed is Venter’s muse and siren. The same manic energy that propels him into race cars and speedboats animates his professional life, leaving behind as many enemies as breakthroughs.
When Venter announced, in 2010, that he brought to life the first bacteria with entirely synthetic DNA, he was met with equal parts ceremony and dismissal. Many scientists hailed the achievement as a watershed moment in human history. “The ability to design and create new forms of life,” the prominent physicist Freeman Dyson proclaimed, “marks a turning point in the history of our species and our planet.” Yet others insisted that, because the DNA was modeled on a natural organism and was inserted into a natural cell, the claims of “synthetic life” were overblown. “He has not created life, only mimicked it,” the Nobel laureate David Baltimore insisted.
When I asked the bioethicist Arthur Caplan about these extremes of adulation and indifference, Caplan did not hesitate. Though he has criticized the Obama ethics commission for underestimating the risk of synthetic biology, he praised Venter himself as revolutionary. “He’s about three major innovations back from the Nobel Prize he should have gotten already,” Caplan said. “When you have the kinds of breakthroughs and insights that he’s had, it’s inexcusable that you wouldn’t reward that kind of work with the Nobel — and it has to be battles over personality and character, more about him than anything else.”
When I asked Venter about his reception among scientists, he was uncharacteristically nonchalant. “Some senior biologists, who in theory should know better than anybody else, keep talking about the importance of the cell,” he shrugged. “They argue: ‘Well, the cell contributed something. It can’t just be the DNA.’ That’s like saying God contributed something. The trouble for these people, it is just the DNA. You have to have the cell there to read it, but we’re 100 percent DNA software systems.” He pointed out that when his lab inserted the DNA of one organism into the cell body of another, the cell became a different organism.
Venter was quick to acknowledge that he still hadn’t created a microbe that serves an innovative purpose. “Sorry we didn’t design some new creature that never existed before as our opening gambit,” he said with a laugh. “What we published was the proof of concept. It’s like: ‘Gee, it would be really nice if the Wright brothers made a supersonic jet! Because that would have been much more useful!’ ”
This seemed like a good opportunity to ask Venter whether he had come any closer to that goal — whether, in addition to the algae modification at S.G.I., his team at the institute was working on another whole-genome assembly. Since the May 2010 announcement, Venter has been comparatively quiet, but it would be unlike him not to silence his critics. I asked him how far he had come over the last two years.
Venter was quiet for a long time. He nodded his head, as if making some calculation, then he said: “We’re doing a grand experiment. We’re trying to design the first cell from scratch.” He suggested we head into town for dinner with his two closest partners in synthetic biology, to discuss the leap they were about to take.
“It’s a little bit of a black art,” he said.
Starting From Scratch
Venter’s closest collaborators in the lab are Hamilton O. Smith and Clyde A. Hutchison III, each vaunted in his own right. Smith shared a Nobel Prize in 1978 for his work on restriction enzymes, and Hutchison’s long pedigree in genetic mapping began in 1975, when he helped the pioneer Frederick Sanger sequence the first genome of a virus, for which Sanger shared his second Nobel in 1980. At 80, Smith is tall and genial, with hearing aides and a slight stoop; Hutchison is 10 years younger, with a boyish flop of hair in his eyes and an air of perpetual worry. Together they enjoy a crotchety rapport that delights Venter endlessly. “They’re like the two old guys in the balcony on the Muppets,” he said. “But they’ve both reached a point in their careers where they can afford to take risks they never would’ve taken 20 years ago — it’s like having the oldest, smartest postdocs in the world.”
As we settled around a dinner table in downtown La Jolla, a waitress delivered foie gras from the chef, setting a plate between Smith and Hutchison, who immediately lurched forward to examine it.
“What’s that?” Hutchison asked.
“Goose liver,” Venter said.
“Oh,” Hutchison said. “I like liver.”
Smith frowned. “It’s glycogen,” he observed.
“Yeah, glycogen,” Hutchison said. “Glycogen is almost like carbohydrate.”
“It is carbohydrate,” Smith said.
Hutchison nodded. “You shouldn’t eat a lot of liver if you’re on a low-carbohydrate diet,” he said.
Then they both attacked it with their forks.
Venter and Smith first met at a conference in Spain in 1993, when Smith approached Venter after a lecture. Venter was just 46, but he was already preceded by controversy. He had recently left the N.I.H. to map gene fragments in his own lab and was licensing the results to a private company, which raised alarms about privatizing life. After his lecture, Venter recalled over dinner: “Ham came up, and his first statement was, ‘Where are your horns?’ And I said, ‘What?’ He goes: ‘You’re supposed to be the devil. Where are your horns?”’
Smith let out a guffaw. “Well,” he said, “he had inflamed a lot of the academics!”
Within months, Smith had joined Venter’s nonprofit, and in 1995, they completed the first genetic sequence of a bacterium, expanding on the work at Sanger’s lab two decades earlier. As a follow-up, they reached out to Hutchison, who was studying another bacterium at the University of North Carolina, and offered to map its genome for him. Two days later, Hutchison mailed a vial of DNA to Venter and Smith. “If that was to happen now,” Smith said, “it would have been three months and a bunch of lawyers.” Hutchison shrugged. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he said.
Venter and Smith worked quickly. Using the method they developed for the first bacterium, they completed a genetic map for Hutchison in three months. But as all three men studied the second genome, which was only a third the size of the first, they began to wonder how much smaller a genome could get. What was the fewest number of genes that could sustain a free-living organism?
“I think any good inquisitive scientists in our position would have asked those same questions,” Venter said. “But how do you get there? The limits of molecular biology don’t give you enough tools.” Working together, they began to winnow down the genome by inserting snippets of DNA that interrupt gene function, on the theory that any gene that could be disrupted without killing the cell must not be essential. In 1999, they published a paper in the journal Science describing “1,354 distinct sites of insertion that were not lethal,” and speculating that more than a quarter of the bacterium’s DNA might be superfluous. But there was still no way to be sure — no way to knock out all the nonessential genes at once and see if the organism survived. In the final sentence of their 1999 paper, they proposed a novel solution: “One way to identify a minimal gene set for self-replicating life would be to create and test a cassette-based artificial chromosome.”
Create a chromosome. This was still far beyond the reach of science, and in hindsight, marks one of the earliest references to synthetic biology as we know it today. But by the time the paper appeared, in December 1999, Venter and Smith had turned their attention to the human genome project at Celera, which would consume their attention for three years. Looking back, Venter says, “the human genome was a detour.” As soon as the Celera map was complete, they returned to the synthetic project. In 2003, they developed a new method to assemble fragments of DNA and built their first virus; when that worked, they scaled up to bacteria, ultimately writing their names and quotes in its code, but the real prize was, and remains, to build the stripped-down organism they first proposed in 1999 — a free-living bacterium with less DNA than any in nature. It would not only test their theories about essential genes but would also provide an ideal framework for future organisms. Once they had the minimal genome, they could use it as a chassis to attach other genes: maybe a component to feed on sulfur or a module to generate hydrogen or both.
“That’s why it’s so valuable,” Venter said. “If we’re going to design really complex biological machinery, it has to have these fundamentals.”
But the minimal genome may raise an even more fundamental question, one that touches on the nature of innovation itself. When we think about technological change, most of us view progress through a narrow lens: we imagine new gadgets and devices that will streamline our modern lives, bringing the most technically advanced civilization in history to new heights of technical advancement. Yet the innovations that really matter in the long term may not have much to do with advancement at all. They may have less to do with improving our own standards of living than with extending those standards around the world. As the global population continues to rise, the greatest technological challenge we face may be to avoid leaving large tracts of the earth behind. The synthetic biology that Venter proposes, using a minimal genome as a platform to make advances in food, fuel, medicine and environmental health, could backfire into a biological calamity, but it could also offer the most transformative approach to a medley of problems with no apparent solution.
“Agriculture as we know it needs to disappear,” Venter said. “We can design better and healthier proteins than we get from nature.” By this, he didn’t mean growing apples in a Petri dish. He meant producing bulk commodities like corn, soy and wheat, that we use in processed products like tofu and cereal. “If you can produce the key ingredients with 10 or 100 times the efficiency,” he said, “that’s a better use of land and resources.”
As we enjoyed a decidedly real dinner of lobster and fresh vegetables, Venter explained that he was just days away from trying the first synthesis of a minimal genome. For two years, even as the team at S.G.I. has been working to cultivate algae, the institute has been poring over research to design a new genome. Eventually, the process grew tedious. “Up to three weeks ago,” Smith said, “we were on a very gradual course, and we were looking at a long time to get the thing completed. So Craig says, ‘Damn it, let’s make a guess, and synthesize the darn thing based on what we know, and maybe it’ll work!’ ”
Venter laughed. “I call it the Hail Mary Genome.”
Just days earlier, he said, they completed two designs — one led by the office in Maryland, the other by Hutchison’s team in California. In the days ahead, they would begin assembling both. If either worked, it would represent the smallest genetic code of any free-living creature on earth, one that would be impossible to dismiss as a copy. Even as we sat at the dinner table, it was possible that Venter, Smith and Hutchison already had it; that somewhere in their lab, they held the design for the first custom organism made from synthetic DNA.
Hutchison said he was encouraged that the two drafts overlapped. “There are about 30 genes different between the two,” he said.
Smith grinned. “I’m gonna go with Clyde’s draft,” he said.
“Well, mine is smaller,” Hutchison said. “I think maybe we’re going to pick some of the pieces from one design and some from the other.”
“We’re also trying to re-engineer the genome in a much more logical fashion,” Venter said. “We’re doing it in the form that, if there was a God, this is how he would have done it.”
“Evolution is very messy,” Smith added.
“We’re trying to clean it up,” Venter said.
“What’s the time horizon?” I asked.
“I have some ideas that, within the year — ” Hutchison began.
Venter shook his said. “Before the end of summer,” he insisted.
“It might be the end of summer,” Smith said.
“It’s going to be the first rationally designed genome,” Venter said.
“Actually, my preference would be not to do the fine needlework,” Smith said. “I would just take the very largest 30 or 40 clusters and remove those.”
“We can do that,” Hutchison said.
“Let’s do it,” Smith said. “The hell with the rest of them.”
Editor: Joel Lovell
A version of this article appeared in print on June 3, 2012, on page MM47 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: God Of Small Things.
Editor: Joel Lovell
DAYTON, Ohio — As cities like this one try to reinvent themselves after losing large swaths of their manufacturing sectors, they are discovering that one of the most critical ingredients for a successful transformation — college graduates — is in perilously short supply.
Just 24 percent of the adult residents of metropolitan Dayton have four-year degrees, well below the average of 32 percent for American metro areas, and about half the rate of Washington, the country’s most educated metro area, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. Like many Rust Belt cities, it is a captive of its rich manufacturing past, when well-paying jobs were plentiful and landing one without a college degree was easy.
Educational attainment lagged as a result, even as it became more critical to success in the national economy. “We were so wealthy for so long that we got complacent,” said Jane L. Dockery, associate director of the Center for Urban and Public Affairs at Wright State University here. “We saw the writing on the wall, but we didn’t act.”
Dayton sits on one side of a growing divide among American cities, in which a small number of metro areas vacuum up a large number of college graduates, and the rest struggle to keep those they have.
The winners are metro areas like Raleigh, N.C., San Francisco and Stamford, Conn., where more than 40 percent of the population has a college degree. The Raleigh area has a booming technology sector and several major research universities; San Francisco has been a magnet for college graduates for decades; and metropolitan Stamford draws highly educated workers from white-collar professions in New York like finance.
Metro areas like Bakersfield, Calif., Lakeland, Fla., and Youngstown, Ohio, where less than a fifth of the population has a college degree, are being left behind. The divide shows signs of widening as college graduates gravitate to places with many other college graduates and the atmosphere that creates.
“This is one of the most important developments in the recent economic history of this country,” said Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who recently published a book on the topic, “The New Geography of Jobs.”
The recession amplified the trend. Metro areas where more than one in three adults were college-educated had an average unemployment rate of 7.5 percent earlier this year, compared with 10.5 percent for cities where less than one in six adults had a college degree, according to Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard and the author of “Triumph of the City.”
Historically, most American cities have had relatively similar shares of college graduates, in part because fewer people went to college. In 1970, the difference between the most educated and least educated cities, in terms of the portion of residents with four-year degrees, was 16 percentage points, and nearly all metro areas were within 5 points of the average. Today the spread is double that, and only half of all metro areas are within 5 points of the average, the Brookings research shows.
“There’s a relentless cycle in which knowledge breeds knowledge, but the flip side is that many places are left out,” said Alan Berube, a senior fellow at Brookings who conducted the analysis using census data from the American Community Survey.
Dayton lost about 1 percent of its college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds between 2000 and 2009 at a time when that group grew by 13 percent nationally, said Joe Cortright, senior policy adviser for CEOs for Cities, an economic development group. In Columbus, Ohio, about 70 miles away, the same group grew by 25 percent.
In a pattern that is part education, part family background, college graduates tend to have longer life expectancies, higher household incomes, lower divorce rates and fewer single-parent families than those with less education, and cities where they cluster tend to exhibit those patterns more strongly. Montgomery County, where Dayton is located, has a premature death rate that is more than double that of Fairfax County, Va., the highly educated Washington suburb, according to Bridget Catlin, a University of Wisconsin researcher.
Now, Dayton is racing to produce, attract and retain college graduates as a badly needed food for its hungry economy. But it is a painstaking process. Kate Geiger, who lost her job at General Motors in 2008, said she would never forget the feeling of sitting in a college classroom for the first time after 24 years on the factory floor.
“I am this 44-year-old, old-school union girl,” she said, “and here I am with all these 18-year-old kids who have grown up with computers.”
Retaining graduates is hard when a city has fewer to begin with, because college graduates, like migratory birds, tend to flock to places with many other college graduates. Kelley Shomaker, 23, who graduated from the University of Dayton this year, said she searched for work in Dayton but ultimately received an offer from Rock Hill, S.C., a suburb of Charlotte, N.C. In August, she and two friends will set off for that city to start teaching careers there.
Charlotte, once a city with very little education, now has a population that is more than a third college graduates. Ms. Shomaker estimated that 60 percent of her friends were moving to other cities.
Dayton’s past was rich, but by the 2000s the city was in trouble. It lost half of its manufacturing jobs in 12 years, according to Richard Stock, an economist at the University of Dayton. When the city’s last Fortune 500 company, National Cash Register, left in 2009, residents were jolted into action.
“Our premise is you have to change people’s mind-set,” said Thomas Lasley, the former dean of education at the University of Dayton, who runs Learn to Earn, the city’s effort to increase its share of college graduates. “We have to go from one where people think of themselves as being in a high-school-attending culture to being in a college-attending culture.”
One effort has shown marked success. The Dayton Early College Academy, which opened in 2003 as a public high school, focuses on preparing low-income students for college. It sends 97 percent of its graduates to college, the vast majority to four-year programs.
One of the graduates, Francei Brown, plans to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta in the fall. His father, who for years cobbled together part-time jobs fixing cars and doing plumbing and roofing, even in the worst weather, was resolute about college for his son.
“He said, ‘I want you to have a job where, if it’s cold outside, you’ll be warm inside,’ ” Mr. Brown said.
Dayton has used internships as a glue to keep recent graduates, and the city found through a recent survey that graduates were twice as likely to stay if they had done an internship at a local business. One of them, Richard Kaiser, who graduated from Wright State University, stayed in Dayton because it was cheaper and seemed faster to advance in a career, a choice he does not regret. Friends who moved to Chicago, he said, “ended up sitting at home and drinking cheap beer and playing video games every night.”
Dayton may be struggling to find a second act, but it has strengths that many industrial cities lack. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is a major employer in the area. Lexis-Nexis, the research company, has a large operation here. And the city has an above average share of people with some college — those who have a two-year degree or who have taken some classes but have no degree.
Steven Lee Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College here, argues that the paradigm may be changing to one in which students take bundles of courses instead of spending four years on obscure academic topics. The approach has been popular among students here, who tend to have children and busy lives (about a tenth of students at Sinclair are displaced workers).
“There’s a concern among employers that a degree is not specific enough,” he said. “What will count is competencies — very concrete things that you have achieved.”
Even so, those with four-year degrees still tend to have the biggest impact on economic development, Mr. Cortright argues.
Ms. Geiger, the former G.M. employee, graduated with an associate degree in graphic design and is now working on a Web site and planning events for a Harley-Davidson shop.
The job does not pay very well, and she compares it to “new shoes that don’t really fit right yet.” But she loves the freedom of not having to clock in and out. “It’s so strange to find that there is life after G.M.,” she said.NYT
"So, here’s the employment-population ratio of men 15-64 in Japan and the United States since 1991, when Japan’s woes are often considered to have begun. Why men as opposed to both sexes, and why the age limitation? Basically, to abstract from social change and demography — Japan has lagged the US in terms of women in paid labor, and also of course has a rapidly aging population. I don’t mean to suggest that only prime-age men matter; this is just a relatively clean indicator. And here’s what it looks like:"
'via Blog this'
"“I did not think we would gain so much momentum over a very obvious issue that has no quick fix to it,” said Mr. Giddis. “There is a lot of cash coming in to U.S. treasuries from everywhere.”"
"Shares in Facebook continued to fall, down 2.3 percent at $28.19. The stock has declined from its initial May 18 offering price of $38."
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Topping off the League of American Bicyclists’ list is Stanford University, the very first university to be named a Platinum Bicycle Friendly Campus, and currently the only one to hold this rank. The honor is well deserved, as Stanford boasts an amazing list of bike-friendly achievements. More than 21% of the university community bikes daily, and it’s easy to understand why: Stanford makes it incredibly easy to bike, on campus and off. They’ve created a Commute Buddy program that pairs experienced bike commuters with newbies who need help getting started, the campus offers access to showers and lockers for bikers, and there’s even a free bike safety class held twice a month. Plus, visiting alumni can enjoy two-wheeling as well, with free bike use offered for former students.
One of two UC schools in the top 10, University of California, Davis is an incredible place to be if you’re a bike-loving student. Although Stanford took top honors, UC’s numbers blow them out of the water: 45% of UCD’s students, faculty, and staff have a bike on campus each day, compared to Stanford’s 21%. UC Davis encourages these numbers by providing a staggering amount of resources for bicyclists: services include bike classes, DIY bike repair and maintenance, summer bike storage, commuter showers and lockers, and even maps and directions created just for campus bikers. But Davis isn’t just providing practical bike love; they’ve embraced the history and art of biking as well with the Pierce Miller Bicycle Collection, an exhibit of vintage bicycles that is the core of what will eventually become a major bicycle museum. Off campus, the city of Davis, Calif., is recognized as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, with more than 100 miles of bike lanes and paths, designated lanes and signals, and local bike maps.
At UCSB, almost half of the student body bikes to school. Really. With 49% of students, and 9% of faculty and staff commuting by bike, it’s clear this campus has a lot of bicycle support. UCSB takes care of their legion of bikers with enough secure bike racks and parking spaces to accommodate each one of them, as well as bicycle lockers, free showers and clothes lockers (including towel service), and several bicycle roundabouts. The university has clearly made an ongoing investment in the future of campus biking with infrastructure offerings including 10 miles of Class I bicycle paths, and freely distributed bike maps showing these campus paths as well as a Santa Barbara County bike map. The UCSB campus is home to the Associated Students Bike Shop, where campus bikers can find repair and maintenance services to keep them on the road safely.
Boise State has been hard at work to create programs that support campus bicycling, including repair services, parking, and maps. They’ve created a Cycle Learning Center, where students can find information, instructional clinics, as well as bike repair services. There are plenty of places to park bikes on campus, with many bike racks and bike barns operating in a variety of different locations, plus showers, lockers, towels, and free compressed air stations. The university doesn’t just make it easy to make biking a part of the daily commute, though: they also offer bike-friendly services for special events with a bike corral for football fans riding to Bronco Stadium. Boise State is also working to further the future of bike transportation, hosting a Community Bicycle Congress since 2004 to offer an open forum for bicycle knowledge, research, and progress.
California State University, Long Beach is in the perfect climate for biking, with manageable temperatures, flat terrain, and low rainfall. But beyond this natural advantage, the university encourages biking on and off campus with a wealth of resources. Rideshare @ The Beach boasts events including weekly rides, scavenger hunts, bike checks, and traffic skills courses. Plus, Rideshare boasts a $1 million annual fund devoted to supporting not just these events, but infrastructure, services, and other resources that support the needs of CSULB cyclists. Cyclists who commute by bike also enjoy special perks like a $1/day reward point for cycling that can be turned into bike shop gift cards.
Colorado State University has a long history of supporting biking on campus, so their BFU Silver award is no surprise. A large part of the CSU population uses biking as a primary means of transportation, with 36% of students, 25% of faculty, and 15% of staff commuting by bike on a regular day. CSU estimates that there are about 15,000 bikes on campus each day. This is made easy thanks to the CSU Campus Bicycle Advisory Committee, which works to make sure that the needs of cyclists are met with every new development and rule on campus. Along with the CBAC, CSU has invested greatly in biking infrastructure, including a recent six-figure installation of new campus bike racks. Of course, this bike-friendly attitude is just an extension of the overall situation in the city of Fort Collins, which has long been recognized as one of the nation’s most bike-friendly communities.
Georgia Tech does so much to make biking a viable commuting option for its community. The Bike GT resource is home to resources and programs including advocacy, the StarterBikes co-op, viaCycle bike sharing network, and a Bicycle Infrastructure Improvement Committee tasked with improving bike infrastructure on the Georgia Tech campus. Plus, Bike GT hosts Bike Week, a celebration of biking on campus that encourages everyone in the community to ride their bikes to and around campus, including fun events like a music video, bike fashion show, and a social ride.
Northern Arizona University has provided immense support of cycling culture on campus. Perhaps most impressive is the university’s Yellow Bike program, which offers students, faculty, and staff an absolutely free bike to borrow along with a helmet and bike lock, making it dumbfoundingly easy to bike on campus. In addition to this great program, NAU has bike registration, public air hoses, locker storage, and recently improved bike pathways to facilitate cyclist transportation. Plus, they have fun biking events including bike-in movies and bike-in tailgating.
Oregon State University’s status as a bike friendly university has a lot to do with its home, the city of Corvallis. This college town is known as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in America, second only to Davis, Calif. The city has an astonishing bike lane infrastructure: 97% of its streets have bike lanes, and by percentage, more people take trips by bike in Corvallis than any other Oregon city. It’s no wonder that this culture has spread to OSU, with 30% of students biking to campus. Bikers at OSU can take advantage of amenities including used bikes for sale in the university’s surplus property, free bike repair, bike maps, and plenty of lockers for storage.
PSU has done a lot to make commuting by bike as easy and affordable as possible. With extensive bike parking facilities and the PSU Bike Hub repair shop, they’ve gone a long way to making their campus bike-friendly. There are plenty of free maps, changing stalls, lockers, and repair resources sprinkled around campus, and students can even rent a bike for just $45 per term through the VikeBikes program. They’ve recently launched a campaign to encourage even more biking at PSU with the Bike2PSU Challenge, creating competitive biking teams, workshops, prizes, and more.